By MEGAN HARTLEY, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS - Maryland legislators, with the help of rookie Gov. Martin O'Malley, went green this session by passing laws regulating everything from dishwashing detergent to diamondback terrapins.
In a legislative session that the Maryland League of Conservation Voters called "great for the environment," the General Assembly enacted major pieces of legislation aimed at reducing car emissions, regulating storm water runoff and restoring the native oyster.
Before O'Malley signed more than 100 bills into law Tuesday afternoon, he praised the strides the legislature made to protect the environment and stressed how important the issue is to the state.
"No issue more underscores that notion of the common good then the health of our environment," said O'Malley. "Whether it's in fully funding open space, whether it's the clean cars act or many other things, we really made some phenomenal progress and it's because of partnerships."
Not everyone shared O'Malley's view, however.
Despite the passage of environmental legislation, the failure of one important bill, the so-called Green fund initiative - which would have taxed new residential and commercial development according to the amount of "impervious surfaces" they contained - prompted a frustrated Comptroller Peter Franchot to say there was "little to no progress this year."
President of the Maryland Waterman's Association Larry Simns says that bills regarding diamondback terrapin capture and clam dredging were "gingerbread and fluff talk" but didn't really do anything for the environment.
He says the real problem is mansions popping up along the shore, and wished the Green Fund had gotten through.
Despite the criticism, many environmentalists expressed elation over bills such as the Clean Cars Act, which passed easily despite opposition from car manufacturers. It requires Maryland to adopt California emission standards -stricter than federal standards. Auto manufacturers are required to have new gas-saving technology in cars sold in Maryland by model year 2011 and offer a percentage of low emission cars, such as hybrids.
Sen. Brian E. Frosh, D-Montgomery a co-sponsor of the bill, had a look of relief and elation on this face when the bill passed the senate.
"I'm ecstatic, it is extremely important," said Frosh. "The bill does many things for the state. It makes the air cleaner, it helps people with respiratory problems and it reduces global warming."
A bill to ban all but tiny amounts of phosphorus in dishwashing detergent by July 1, 2009, also sponsored by Frosh, made it easily through the Assembly as well.
"It is important to help protect the bay. Phosphates are the most damaging pollutants we have and we can control them easily and relatively inexpensively," said Frosh.
Another bay-friendly bill regulates storm water management by requiring developers to apply environmental site design.
Environmentalists do agree that the failure of the Green Fund was a major disappointment, however.
"There were some high points and some low points," said Kim Coble, Maryland executive director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "There were some things that legislators could be proud of but there were not any bold out-of the-box initiatives."
The speaker of the House of Delegates, Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, said the fund is not dead and still could pass in future sessions.
"This is the first year of a four year process. If you don't get something passed in the first year it doesn't mean you stop working on it," said Busch.
Farmers and environmentalists - in the past often pitted against each other - came together in support of the fund. The Senate president, Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, said O'Malley deserves credit for the new political alliance.
"He bridged the gap between the farmers and the environmentalists. They recognized we are in this together," said Miller.
O'Malley is also responsible for fully funding Program Open Space, which provides funds for state and local parks as well as conservation areas. Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland, says the funding is one of the most important environmental advancements this year.
Although Simns believes the decline in terrapin populations is due to the fact that the species have no shoreline to lay eggs because of development, lawmakers partially disagree and attribute the decline it too over harvesting.
Diamondback terrapins are captured in the Chesapeake Bay and sent to China for various medicinal and culinary purposes. A ban on capturing and holding terrapins for commercial use passed this session, in an effort to protect the reptiles from extinction.
"This is our mascot, our state reptile, if we don't do this today our mascot is going to go extinct except in China," said the sponsor of the bill, Sen. Roy P. Dyson, D-St. Mary's. Along with the terrapin ban came some successful legislation to help Maryland's native oyster. The Chesapeake Bay Oyster Restoration Bill will strictly enforce harvest restrictions, set aside portions of the bay for oyster restoration and create a task force to investigate things like diseases and aquaculture.